Employee Surveillance Rises Alongside Work-from-Home Rates

task-monitoring software reports worker activity to companies

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

More employers are keeping tabs on their work-from-home employees during the pandemic, NPR reported. Surveillance measures include keystroke-monitoring software and geopositioning software so companies can make sure employees are at home and working. But this comes with a cost.

Close up of woman working on laptop at home, comfortably.
During the pandemic and work-from-home orders, some businesses have opted to have their employees use software that tracks their work during their work day. Photo by Ivan Kruk / Shutterstock

According to NPR, businesses are keeping a closer eye on their employees than ever before. “The coronavirus pandemic has forced about a third of U.S. workers to do their jobs from home,” the article said. “In turn, companies are ramping up the use of software to monitor what their employees do all day.” The article goes on to explain the implementation of apps onto employees’ computers including Hubstaff, which monitors keystrokes and mouse movements as well as keeping a record of which websites employees visit online; and Time Doctor, which records videos of workers’ laptop screens while they work and enables their webcam to snap a photo of them at random once every 10 minutes or so.

Spying on workers may seem like it would increase productivity and cut waste-related costs, but it also comes at a cost to both the person doing the spying and the person being spied on. Both too much surveillance and too much anonymity can cause distinct effects.

Self-Editing and the Observer Effect

In any aspect of life, when people know they’re being watched, they behave differently. It can be as simple as watching our language more in front of people who we know may be offended or a student deciding not to peek over a classmate’s shoulder when the teacher is in the room.

“There is, we learn, a self-editing effect that arises from the mere perception of scrutiny,” said Professor Paul Rosenzweig, Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. “One study in New Jersey during the 1990s found a direct correlation between how workers perceived surveillance in the workplace and how they assessed their own privacy, self-esteem, and workplace communications. The greater the level of perceived surveillance, the more negative the work environment was thought to be.”

This self-editing behavior, also called the observer effect, extends beyond legal surveillance. Professor Rosenzweig mentioned an Australian study that determined that students who were aware that their posts on student message boards were monitored by their schools were more likely to change their casual writing styles, what they discussed online, and even which internet sites they browsed.

Online Disinhibition

On the opposite end of the spectrum of the observer effect is the ugliness that rears up from having complete anonymity in one’s actions.

“We commonly recognize that anonymous actors are ruder and more abusive than those who we can identify,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “The most common place we see this is in the cyber domain where anonymity is common. This effect is sometimes known as the online disinhibition effect—social norms that are present in face-to-face conversations seem to disappear in the cyber world.”

This habit of using anonymity as a shield isn’t exclusive to the internet. Professor Rosenzweig pointed out similar examples with CB radio and road rage.

Anonymity, or the perception of being anonymous, is one major factor of why people act so ugly towards one another. Another factor, he said, stems from invisibility—tone of voice and body language are lost online and messages leave their audience to guess their meanings through choice of words.

“And if I can’t see you, I can’t know who you are—so I can’t relate to you,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “A third cause is sometimes called asynchronicity. We aren’t talking to each other in the same place at the same time—that makes it easy to leave a message that is volatile and inflammatory and then just disappear.”

Watching employees through surveillance technology shares one important trait with having complete anonymity on the internet—they each strip people of their identities. The worker under too much scrutiny feels like a lab rat or a criminal, or at least someone not to be trusted or respected. Total anonymity results in a shield effect, which people sometimes use to go so far as bullying others into suicide.

Paul Rosenzweig, J.D., contributed to this article. Mr. Rosenzweig is a Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School

Professor Paul Rosenzweig contributed to this article. Professor Rosenzweig is a Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. He earned his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School and then served as a law clerk to the Honorable R. Lanier Anderson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.